December 1999/January 2000
Changing The Future:
Dudley And The VVA Commendation Medal
By Jim Belshaw
The recipient of the 1999 VVA Commendation Medal is Dudley--no first name, no
middle initial. Only Dudley.
She prefers it that way. She says nothing else is necessary.
That single name has been well-known in Northern California veteran
communities for the twenty-seven years she has worked at the Sonoma County
Veterans Service Office. Veterans seeking help with VA claims ask for her by
name because the word has been out for a long time: Dudley gets things done.
She is an Army veteran herself, having served in the Signal Corps from
1962-65. She is the first paid Life Member of VVA Chapter 223 in Santa Rosa,
Dudley has sat on the chapter's Board of Directors since its inception and
has worked on virtually every community project in which the chapter has been
involved. She is the chair of the chapter’s Veterans Affairs, Agent
Orange/Dioxin, and Veterans Incarcerated Committees and is a member of the
POW/MIA Committee. She also serves on the Finance Committee for the Board of
Ten years ago, Dudley encouraged Vietnam veterans to become involved in
Memorial Day flag ceremonies in which a thousand full-sized American flags are
flown. In the beginning, it took twenty veterans several hours to raise and
lower the flags. Now hundreds take part.
She was instrumental in establishing POW/MIA ceremonies in Sonoma County. In
1985 she encouraged all veterans groups in the county to join forces in the
annual Santa Rosa-Luther Burbank Rose Parade, the second largest parade in the
state. For the past thirteen years, those entries have stretched for two blocks.
Dudley has mastered the ways of the VA and has become an expert in processing
claims, particularly those related to PTSD. But expertise came only with time,
and the early years were especially difficult.
"The traumatic thing was working in this office from 1972-80, knowing
there was nothing you could do about people who were so mentally
disturbed," she said. There was nothing she could do because PTSD wasn't
officially recognized by the VA until 1980. After that, the county began
She said the VA questioned why Sonoma County accounted for 75 percent of the
PTSD claims in Northern California. "All I could say to that was that we
were the only ones doing our jobs," she said.
She credits VVA service rep training and a first-class chewing-out with
advancing her knowledge of VA claim intricacies. "Around 1989 or 1990, I
talked to a VVA member who was 100 percent PTSD," she said. "I asked
him how he got the 100 percent rating on PTSD. He went ballistic on me. He told
me I was a good-for-nothing service rep, that I had no business being one if I
couldn't get 100 percent. He just chewed me out royally. He walked away, came
back a few minutes later, and chewed me out again. It was fine for him to do
that. I had it coming. I thought, ‘Damn, what am I doing wrong?’"
Back home in California, Dudley reconsidered the advice she had been given at
the service rep training: consult with the VA, talk to the people who work
there. It took weeks to gather the
proper materials and information, but once she did, she found success.
"It paid off that I listened," she said. "When VVA told me to
go to my VA, I did. The training VVA gave me, I used. And now the VA is
complying. Our VA [in Oakland] is doing a wonderful job. I know a lot of
veterans are upset with the VA, but they're not going by the process and they
don't know the process. A lot of county service offices don't know it. But you
can work within the VA system. Find out what the VA needs to grant, cut out all
the other garbage, and get to the issue. Follow the requirements. Work within
the system. But make sure the system interprets the law correctly."
Dudley is fifty-five and has worked for twenty-seven years in the system. She
doesn't foresee retirement and says she'll "probably die on the job."
She finds great satisfaction in her work, knowing that she has made lives and
families and communities better.
"I can't win them all," she said. "I don't judge people. I'm
not paid to do that. I'm paid to produce. It can be stressful; it can be
upsetting. They can die on me. They die too young. I remember the faces and I
grieve. I like my clients. I'm accessible. I'm right here in the community. When
they come see me, they know I care about them. I just want to right a wrong. I
can't change the past, but we can change the future. That's the goal. What can
we do to change your future? Let's move on."